March 27, 2020: “Hey dude, love your shirt!” That’s what I heard when leaving the store yesterday, on my way out. That sort of thing would normally make my wife cringe — she hates my tie-dyed shirts — but she was not with me. It was a nice injection of normalcy in an abnormal situation. I was doing my weekly shopping, and as soon as I walked in the front door I went on autopilot. That entails wandering up and down each aisle with a list, finding my stuff, and getting out. But I’m always amazed by supply chains and pay attention to where everything comes from. So there I am, after work, just doing my weekly shopping routine, but also carefully not panicking. Some people were; they had loaded their carts with all sorts of crap they likely will be throwing out in a couple weeks. But I just focused on getting what I needed for this week. I’ll be back next week. And so I settled in to a nice, leisurely stroll down the aisles, exchanging niceties with folks along the way.
Until, that is, the announcement came over the store speakers that the place was closing in 15 minutes. It was quarter to six p.m. on a Thursday night. Well, this was new. Admittedly, I ignored a bunch of crimson-font signs on the way in, assuming they all said things like don’t kiss anybody, and only two rolls of toilet paper allowed per customer — but apparently I’d missed the one saying the store closed at 6.00 p.m. on a week night. I’m not sure what the logic behind that was. One fellow shopper in the long lines at the registers speculated it was to allow time to re-stack shelves, but seriously — I was a stockboy when I was 14 years old, and it wouldn’t have taken me all night to do that place. So what ensued upon the announcement was a mad dash as all of us, yours truly included, suddenly had just 15 minutes to grab what we needed and get out. It was a great way to induce a panic. And they got one. Maybe the idea was that cutting store hours would discourage hoarding? If so, it seems to me that there are more effective ways to do that.
In any event, this all added up to me being quite flustered and frustrated by the time I did get through the registers, and so it was a pleasant surprise to have someone suddenly inject some sense of normalcy back into my life with the compliment about the shirt. Thank you, Sir, wherever you are.
On a side note, my father reminded me of an old 1970s Pat McManus story about a guy trapped in a mountain cabin during a blizzard that I need to dig up. Pat McManus is a great antidote for cabin fever — well, for anything, really.
Be well —
March 26, 2020: Went to the bank today and had to do the drive-through. (Bank lobbies are closed.) I haven’t done that in decades. I have to admit it was fun, playing with the pneumatic tube. I could also tell the over-worked teller was not impressed with my childhood sense of wonderment with 20th century technologies.
I next moved on to a local supermarket for a couple things, and found myself standing and cleaning my hands vigorously at the sanitizer stations they’ve set up by the entrances. This whole experience has made me much more aware of my relationship with surfaces, and I’ve developed a sort of tactile sensitivity recently. I have taken the approach friends from India taught me years ago, of a dirty (left) hand and a clean (right) hand, so there’s a division of labor between my hands as far as how I interact with my environment. When I was standing in line, the cashier cracked a joke with the customers in front of me, two women in their forties or so, about the need for such extreme precautions. One woman burst into laughter, while her companion did so more slowly, looking at her, finally commenting, “I know why she’s laughing.” The first woman nodded and mentioned she’s been a life-long extreme germophobe; the rest of the world is just now catching up to her lifestyle.
My trip to the food store took place over lunch so the store was relatively empty, but people were still civil. Both today and before I’ve seen examples of store managers having to firmly explain why there are limits on some items, as some people are still in hoard mode. (One article I read this morning written by a banking analyst said bluntly, there’s enough toilet paper. We know this because there was no shortage before COVID-19, and there’s nothing about COVID-19 that requires people to use more toilet paper than usual. Clearly toilet paper-hoarding is just a panic reaction.) But on the whole, civilization seems to keep plodding forth. I am grateful for that.
I did catch while in a small, local food place yesterday that even they have taken to hiring extra stock people for the night shifts recently. Apparently Marketbasket, Shaws and others have all been doing this, so that behind the scenes at night when stores close there’s been a massive effort to restock shelves, both to simply keep supplies flowing but also (I suspect with some nudging by state authorities) to fend off any panic: people can walk into these food stores at any time and see the shelves (mostly) full, as usual, which is a kind of reassurance. Imagine walking into your local food store and seeing the shelves ransacked and empty, and knowing you still had another month of quarantine…
We are concerned about our neighbors. I notice one is working in his yard a lot this week, and I haven’t seen he other go to work recently. We are blessed with good neighbors; I hope their finances hold out.
March 25, 2020: In this space I’ll be sharing some thoughts, stirrings and observations about my experience of the isolation we’re all living with under the threat of COVID-19. These are extraordinary times, and we’re all struggling to adjust to new normals. I’ve read many times about the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, so it is terrifying to see something similar happening now, today, in my lifetime. On the news tonight they showed a new temporary morgue being constructed in the parking lot of some hospital in New York, which reminded me of pictures from 1918 of coffins stacked high on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, NY.
In a sense, I’m grateful for this experience. It helps me understand the fear and sense of helplessness people must have felt a century ago, of how we have to hope the people in charge know what they’re doing. The buffoon who gets all the news coverage surely does not, but others have risen to the occasion. I also appreciate being jolted out of my routines, and reminded of our shared humanity. Quite frankly, with the way our politics has been going recently, I am particularly grateful for something that transcends the noise and reminds us (if brutally) what life is really important. As a historian, I am also intrigued by how our many overlapping systems work and interact; disruption like this reveals what is connected to what, and what they all mean to us.
But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t…concerned. No, scared. Shitless. This is a disease that has behaved in some unpredictable ways, leaving some with an annoying joint ache and others with severely damaged lungs — and worse. I am in a lower risk category, but I’m a life form highly susceptible to COVID-19 like all my fellow humans, and have no idea how my body will react. And then there’s my wife, who works in what has been deemed an essential industry just this week, and must report in every day she can… Family, friends; it’s like we’re trapped in a horror film where some silent killer stalks among us. And I worry about the economic impact as well. In a bizarre irony, my company finds itself in an unusually stable moment, and may actually weather this. But so many others are not so lucky. One of my favorite local restaurants closed last Friday, and told me they weren’t sure if they’ll be able to reopen.
For the moment, it seems people are taking things in stride and being civil. My occasional forays to the supermarket or for other local needs have so far been pretty pleasant experiences, actually. People joke, share anecdotes, and give each other some room. I’ve seen some of the panic hoarding, but not not as much as is reported on the news. I get it — they’re scared, and there’s this impulse to just do something. I worry that panic may spread as this draws out. David Brooks commented about the 1918-1919 influenza crisis, that many tried afterward to blot it from their memory — not just because of the horrors of seeing so many die, but also because they were so ashamed of how they’d behaved to their neighbors and strangers in moments of stressed-out rage and panic. We haven’t seen that yet, but this crisis is still in its early stages. On tonight’s news some experts projected the peak for New York’s unfolding horror as being at best a few weeks in the future still.
I plan to continue to add to this so long as this crisis endures, and encourage others to do the same — either consider starting their own online journals, hopefully here on the WFoD blog, or even just add their thoughts and experiences to this column alongside mine.